2021 Playoffs: West First Round | Suns vs. Lakers

Series Preview: Suns face tall task in return to playoffs

Defenses and big men could be crucial factors in this series as L.A. begins its title defense on the road.

The Lakers are sure to have their defense keyed in on slowing Suns All-Star guard Devin Booker.

This matchup seemed almost unfathomable just a few weeks ago. But here we are after the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers edged Golden State in the State Farm Play-In Tournament to earn the No. 7 seed and a playoff date against a Phoenix Suns team returning to the postseason for the first time since 2010.

The Suns gathered together to watch the Play-In game, according to Jae Crowder, as Phoenix gets a full week to rest up and prepare for Sunday’s matchup at home, where capacity has reportedly been increased to approximately 11,000.

“I’m excited to be in the playoffs and to continue to play, but I don’t know what to expect, man,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said. “I just know it’s gonna be super-intense, it’s going to be serious, it’s going to be really [more] of a mental focus, not only physical. I’m ready to take that next step. That’s what I’ve been waiting for, working for.”

When Monty Williams took over as coach of the Suns last season, they were coming off a 19-63 finish in 2018-19. In Williams’ first season, Phoenix finished 34-39, but surprised the league and predicted what would come later by running off a perfect 8-0 record inside the NBA restart bubble.

Ayton views that brief stint over the summer as a turning point.

“Just seeing how [Williams] instilled his culture and teaching us young guys [how] to approach the game before the bubble even, but it really started in the bubble; approaching the game the right way, having gratitude, sharing the ball, being on time, just playing defense,” Ayton said. “He instilled that in the bubble, and to see how it progressed in a full season is actually amazing. It’s just a great feeling on this team to have a coach like that who really cares about us.”

Three things to watch 

1. The Battle of the bigs: Ayton sat out of Phoenix’s last three games of the regular season due to a knee injury, but he said Wednesday he’ll be ready to go for Game 1. “I feel great, to be honest,” Ayton said. That’s definitely positive news for the Suns because defending the Lakers’ inside combination of Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond won’t be easy for Ayton and Crowder. Phoenix won two of the three regular-season meetings between these teams, but Davis played in only one of those games, a 123-110 Lakers win on May 9. Let’s also not forget about Los Angeles’ depth inside with Montrezl Harrell, Markieff Morris and Marc Gasol. The Lakers rank No. 6 in the league in points in the paint, while Phoenix is 26th in that category.

2. Expect plenty of defense: The Lakers allow opponents to connect on just 35.2% of their attempts from long range, and the Suns are pretty stout in that department, too, limiting teams to 35.4% from deep. Los Angeles leads the NBA in defensive rating (106.8), while the Suns are No. 6 (110.4). The Lakers will commit plenty of resources to shutting down Devin Booker and Chris Paul, so the Suns’ supporting cast needs to step up in a major way. Phoenix owns the advantage in continuity, considering it has been together virtually the entire season while Davis and LeBron James have missed a combined 63 games. James and Davis will quickly round into form. “It was good to get that first playoff punch out of the way,” James said Wednesday night. “It wasn’t comfortable, but it settled us.”

3. Phoenix’s lack of playoff experience: You’d think that could put the Suns at a major disadvantage because three of their starters — Booker, Ayton and Mikal Bridges — are making their postseason debuts. But that’s where the experience of Paul and Crowder should help Phoenix tremendously on the floor, especially with the former running the team from the point guard spot. Game 1 will mark the first postseason meeting between Paul and James. “I get jitters before every game,” Paul said. “I always say the day that I stop getting them, I need to retire. I’m excited and nervous at the same time going into every game. It’s exciting more than anything. For the playoffs, there’s nothing like it. The intensity of it, you’re not coming off a back-to-back, you’ve got time to prepare.”

Number to know

2.15 — The Suns led the league in assist/turnover ratio, and their ratio of 2.15 was the second-highest in the 44 seasons for which turnovers have been counted. League-wide, the last five seasons have produced the five highest ratios of those 44 years, with the league’s ratio of 1.79 this season being the highest. So the Suns are, in part, riding the wave. But they also have one of the best point guards in NBA history in regard to taking care of the ball. Paul’s career assist/turnover ratio of 3.92 is the third highest (behind only those of Muggsy Bogues and John Paxson) among players who’ve played at least 10,000 minutes over the last 44 years. This season, Paul ranked second in the league at 3.99.

The Lakers had the league’s No. 1 defense, in part because they ranked fourth in opponent turnover rate (15.2 per 100 possessions). In their Play-In win on Wednesday, the defending champs forced 20 turnovers out of the Warriors, including 15 in the second half. With their size and athleticism, the Lakers can be as disruptive as any team on that end of the floor. And when they can get live-ball turnovers, they can run and alleviate some of their offensive issues.

In the Suns’ two wins over the Lakers this season, Paul totaled 23 assists and just three turnovers. But the Lakers’ May 9 win was one of the five times this season where he had five or more turnovers. That isn’t the be-all and end-all statistic when it comes to these two teams, but the Suns’ ability to take care of the ball against the Lakers’ defense will affect both ends of the floor.

— John Schuhmann

The pick 

It’s a little weird to see a No. 7 seed favored over a No. 2 seed for the opening round, but the Lakers experienced some extenuating circumstances during the regular season due to James and Davis missing time with injuries. In Los Angeles’ Play-In victory against the Warriors, you could see in the second half the Lakers were starting to find some rhythm and cohesion. That will only improve as their first-round series progresses against the Suns. “Knowing that we’re the defending champs, nothing’s gonna be easy for us because we do have a target on our back, and every team wants to beat us,” Davis said Wednesday night. “So, we’ve got to know that. We’ve got to come out a lot better than we did [tonight] against Phoenix in that playoff series.” Lakers in 6.

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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